Wave Books, 2009
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets starts with its worst sentence: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.” I am suspicious of this sentence; I find it contrived. Everything else about the book I love.
Bluets, which is a prose-poetry hybrid (or, arguably, an essay), is written as a series of numbered “propositions,” like a treatise, and draws heavily from a list of sources cited in the back, including Wittgenstein and Goethe. (Nelson’s work may appeal to fans of Jenny Boully.) The book has three main subjects or themes: the philosophy of color; the analysis of a past romantic relationship; and the ostensible love affair (an emotional affair? unrequited?) with the color blue.
The third is often foregrounded, but it’s the least interesting of the three, or perhaps I should say the most annoying. But one can get around that by rejecting that first line as disingenuous and taking the “love” object for what it really is—an object of obsession. Or, more properly, displaced obsession, since the speaker increasingly seems to be focusing on blue as a way of avoiding the more difficult subjects of depression and loss. (I say “speaker” in deference to the common wisdom that the “narrator” of a poem is not identical to its author, but the speaker in this book does make frequent reference to the act of authoring it.)
The path toward this recognition—that the speaker-author is afraid that if she writes about her real subject, the words will supersede her actual experience, the way a childhood photo “replaces the memory it aimed to preserve”—is both fascinating and beautiful. It’s an inquiry into the very nature of color—a purely subjective experience that nonetheless falls under the purview of science—as well as a catalogue of the cultural uses of blue, in books, in pornography, in music. Nelson can write a lovely lyric line (“a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette”; “an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire”) but doesn’t stake her claim in metaphors and images. Bluets is built from ideas and questions: Why has so little been made of the “female gaze”? How long is one permitted to be “blue” before they must admit their life is simply ruined? (The consensus among her friends is seven years.)
These ideas and references serve as a string of jumping-off points for self-reflection and realization:
177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.
I never feel satisfied with poetry that is wholly cerebral or wholly emotional, so I love that Maggie Nelson’s writing gives me a philosophy fix along with a hit of the Romantic sublime.
Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney isDon’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found inColorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.